Saturday, April 01, 2006

Ortega Quoted

by Stephen Shields in History repeats itself?, in The American Thinker:

Such a disassociation between standards and their permanent translation into action would never have come about if we had been taught, together with the imperative of objectivity, that of self-consistency, which comprises the whole series of vital imperatives. It is necessary that at all times we should be sure that we do in fact believe what we presume we believe; that the ethical ideal we accept “officially” does in fact interest and stimulate the deeper energies of our personality. If we had been in the habit of so clarifying our inward situation from time to time, we should have automatically exercised due selection in culture and eliminated all such forms of it as are incompatible with life, utopian, and conducive to hypocrisy. On the other hand culture would not have been continually relegated to increasingly remote distances from the vitality which creates it, nor condemned at last, in a ghostly isolation, to petrifaction. So, in one of those phases of the drama of history, in which man needs all his vital resources to preserve himself from catastrophic circumstances and needs most of all those which are nourished and stimulated by faith in transcendental values, that is, in culture, it happens that, in such an hour as that which is passing over Europe, everything fails him. And yet junctures like the present are the experimental test of cultures. Facts have brutally imposed on Europeans, through their own indiscretion, the immediate obligation to be self-consistent, to decide what they authentically believe, and they have discovered that they do not. They have called this discovery the “breakdown of culture.” It is obvious that there is nothing of the sort: something had broken down long before, and that was the self-consistency of Europeans; the breakdown is that of their own vitality.
—José Ortega y Gasset, The Modern Theme (1923).

This struck a chord because I had recently read Eric Bentley’s Preface to his play Wannsee. In the Preface, Bentley talks (it was a talk to the graduating class of Trinity School in New York City circa 1980), about “official optimism” and “unofficial pessimism,” saying that in contrast to the official optimism of politicians, generals, Christianity, advertisers, and educators, “the unofficial philosophy of modern society, possibly of all society so far [seen in the glum subway rider and much modern art], is pessimism.“

But as a bee sting this morning taught me, Life wills life. To quote Jacques Barzun:

The existentialist complaint seems puny. . . . Earlier philosophies used life as the very source of sanity; it was the measure of rightness, not vulneralbe to corruption. The distinction was implicit between Life and our life at the moment; and the new thought, the new art showed what Life demanded. Even the Stoics, who did not dance with joy at the idea of being alive, left life and the cosmos their validity. The Absurd marks a failure of nerve.
—Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence (200).

See also Notes 56.


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